Smithsonian Undersecretary for Art Ned Rifkin to Leave in April

Ned Rifkin said he is leaving as part of a transition plan worked out with the Smithsonian's acting secretary.
Ned Rifkin said he is leaving as part of a transition plan worked out with the Smithsonian's acting secretary. (Smithsonian Institution - Smithsonian Institution)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ned Rifkin, the Smithsonian Institution's undersecretary for art for the past four years, announced yesterday he is leaving the post next month to "give myself a sabbatical" from administrative duties.

His announcement comes as the Smithsonian Board of Regents is searching for a new secretary, the top administrative job at the world's largest museum complex. The new person would replace Lawrence M. Small, who resigned last March during investigations into his expenditures. The new secretary will probably reorganize some of the administrative framework. Rifkin is the only one of the Smithsonian's top five officials who isn't serving an interim appointment.

Rifkin, 58, said the pending appointment of the new secretary was part of his timing and his departure was part of a transition plan he worked out with the Acting Secretary Cristi¿n Samper.

"When they installed Cristi¿n, I went to him and said if you would like my resignation, I am happy to give it to you. He asked me to stay on and provide continuity and stability," Rifkin said. "Now the year I promised is up, and there are many things I want to do."

One plan Rifkin described yesterday was taking some time to go to his family's home on Fire Island in New York and do some personal writing. One project is a family history for his grandson, Dmitri Mendoza, who is almost 5. Rifkin said he isn't hurrying to another job. "No one who loves art wants to be an administrator," he said. "I am at the point in my life where I am going to be careful about the next job. What is important is the fit."

His departure also marks another turnover in the leadership of the Smithsonian art museums. The directors of the National Portrait Gallery and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden left late last year. Martin Sullivan will take over the Portrait Gallery in late April, and the Hirshhorn search is almost complete, according to Rifkin.

The position of undersecretary for art was created in 2004 to bring better coordination and visibility to the art museums, which have often operated in the shadow of the immensely popular National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History.

Rifkin was in charge of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the National Museum of African Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Hirshhorn and the Portrait Gallery, as well as the Archives of American Art and the Smithsonian Photography Initiative. After Rifkin leaves April 11, the supervision will be transferred to Richard Kurin, the acting undersecretary for history and culture.

During Rifkin's tenure, the renovation of the Old Patent Office Building was completed. The building is home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery. Attendance at almost all the art museums has increased in the first two months of 2008, compared with the same time in 2007.

Under Rifkin's leadership, a group of U.S. museum directors analyzed the Smithsonian's eight art facilities and last year issued a report that said they hadn't lived up to their potential as national collections. "They have seldom lived up to their names," the report concluded, adding that the museums were underfunded and suffered from uneven collections and some had inadequate leadership.

"The review was somewhat controversial because it made certain people uncomfortable. It was tabled, but it still exists and the new secretary will have a chance to review it," Rifkin said.

In the past two years, the general management of the Smithsonian has been criticized by members of Congress. Lawmakers complained about high salaries, outside income paid to top officials who served on corporate boards, and secret business contracts. The Board of Regents, which includes members of Congress and the chief justice of the United States, was chastised for a lax oversight of its operations. A special report by the Smithsonian inspector general found last year that many of the top administrators were earning more than President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Rifkin earned $440,000, according to the report.

Rifkin said, "It has been a difficult year for everyone at the Smithsonian. But the scrutiny is actually a healthy thing and change is hard for many people."

Rifkin was director of the Hirshhorn before becoming undersecretary. He was chief curator at the Hirshhorn from 1986 to 1991. He was director of the Menil Collection and Foundation in Houston and the High Museum in Atlanta. He also worked at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

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